Authors: Shirley Telles, Nilkamal Singh, Acharya Balkrishna
Date: March 2012
Journal: Depression Research and Treatment, Hindawi Publishing Corporation
People react to trauma differently and to varying extents based on their coping capacity. Many may develop mental health disorders such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc. The long-term effects of trauma include both physiological symptoms like hyper-arousal (a state of high alertness that trauma survivors often experience) and psychological symptoms including social avoidance and isolation, loss of trust, dissociation, etc. Trauma impairs neuroendocrine systems in the body, activating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), suppressing the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and increasing cortisol (stress-hormone) circulation.
Pharmacological treatments often have side-effects and other top-down treatments may not address all the symptoms of trauma. Hence body-based therapies such as yoga are recommended to address trauma and related mental health issues. Telles et al. aimed to study the existing literature on the use of yoga and meditation in addressing mental health disorders resulting from trauma.
Telles et al. analysed 12 studies that dealt with trauma related to natural disasters, combat and terrorism, interpersonal violence, and incarceration in a correctional facility. These included 7 randomised control trials (RCTs), 4 single group studies, and one cross-sectional group survey.
The studies related to natural disasters consisted of two performed with adult survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that affected south-east Asia, one with Hurricane Katrina survivors, and one with survivors of the recurring Bihar floods. All four studies dealt with forms of yoga and meditation and related activities, with one study additionally administering trauma reduction exposure technique to the participants. The results of these studies showed that PTSD, anxiety, and depression scores and symptoms significantly decreased after the interventions.
The participants in the studies related to combat and terrorism consisted of high school students exposed to war in Kosovo in two studies, and one case study each with preteen Israeli school children affected by the Second Lebanon War, children (aged 6-12 years) experiencing PTSD after the 2002 Bali bomb explosion, and children affected by civil war and tsunami in Sri Lanka. The first three studies’ participants underwent several yoga sessions, the children from Bali underwent Spiritual-Hypnosis Assisted Therapy (SHAT), and the Sri Lankan children received narrative exposure therapy for children (KIDNET) and meditation-relation (MED-RELAX). In all cases, PTSD scores and symptoms significantly reduced and in some cases, significant improvements were found in attention span, inattention, and restlessness.
In participants who were victims of trauma resulting from interpersonal violence and minor legal offenders in correctional facilities and community homes, meditation and yoga reduced physical and cognitive stress-induced responses.
Studies have shown that meditative practices can cause significant increase in whole blood serotonin (mood stabilizing hormone) levels, increase neurotransmitter activity (such as GABA), lower stress, increase plasma dopamine (pleasure hormone) levels, and improve mood, among other positive changes. These neurophysiological changes must be further researched in trauma survivors who have practiced yoga and meditation.
In all the studies analysed by Telles et al., the psychological and physiological symptoms of trauma and related mental health disorders improved after yogic and meditation practices in survivors of various kinds of trauma. Even participants who had been exposed to multiple kinds of trauma, such as the Sri Lankan children, faced significant improvements in trauma-related symptoms. However, there is a lack of adequately rigorous research on yoga’s use on trauma-exposed individuals. This gives weight to the need for more research on yoga and meditation practices to be integrated into mainstream therapeutic practices for people suffering from trauma and related mental health disorders.